Beatriz for Dinner: a review of Miguel Areta’s film “Beatriz at Dinner”

Beware the unexpected invitation to dine with strangers with sharp, shiny teeth: you may find yourself the main course, served tartare.

Beatriz at Dinner, a film written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Areta, promises to be a mediation for our times. It features a set of slightly exotic but familiar characters: Beatriz, the massage therapist/alternative healer who is vegetarian because she cannot bear the suffering of animals; and the vulgar real estate developer Grant and his wife Cathy, Beatriz’s pampered but compassionate client. We join these characters for a dinner where Beatriz, an inadvertent guest, finds herself sparring with Grant’s client, the sanguine Trumpian billionaire Doug Strutt. Beatriz’s sincerity exposes the pretenses and discomforts endured by Strutt’s sycophants, who depend on his wealth to trickle down the Canyon into their in-ground swimming pools.

The film promises that Beatriz’s presence will challenge and break open the shallow veneer that covers the brutality of relations between white privilege and racialized oppression, between those who provide services and those who are served. But Beatriz at Dinner ultimately serves up Beatriz’s bloody heart as just another course at dinner, an interesting if uncomfortable interlude before the next divertissement comes along.

In trailers for the film, Salma Hayek’s subtle and mobile face as Beatriz shines as she engages in unspoken confrontation with the embodiment of exploitative power. Unfortunately, this trailer is the whole story. I would warn of spoilers here if there was a plot to give away, but there is none. There are moments of Beatriz speaking truth to power, but they are fruitless and unthreatening protests that generate laughter at her apolitical strategy for apparently political speech. The drama is limited to these flabby tensions and resolutions, and proceeds without dramatic climax. At the end of Beatriz at Dinner, while both the characters and the viewers have been very uncomfortable, neither have any new insights. No one is changed.

What is most fascinating about Beatriz at Dinner is what it fails to imagine. While the intricate operation of how whiteness and gender support the owning class is surgically revealed, Beatriz herself fumbles without visible context or community. She makes a series of calls for help that disappoint, or go unanswered. The film’s insistence that Beatriz has no visible means of support beyond her white patrons reinforces that she is not a person, but a function. Clumsy attempts to paint Beatriz as somehow politically informed and engaged are undermined by insisting on her isolation. Stranded and antagonized, Beatriz declines an invitation to connect offered by the aproned and uniformed Spanish-speaking maid, the only other visible Latina in the film.  While revealing their shared role as merely servants in this household of the powerful, the film refuses to imagine that Beatriz could respond as part of a community that includes that maid, a community in which both women have values and identities that are not organized around serving the powerful, or resisting them. When the maid asks Beatriz “Cómo fue la cena?” she calls on both Beatriz and the filmgoer to consider the powerlessness of individual action for justice or healing in the absence community.

Beatriz at Dinner is disturbing only in the way that it closes, offering an implausible dessert of tired tropes and colonial fantasy. Beatriz becomes the wildness of nature rather than human, spiritually pure but dispossessed, the conveniently vanishing native. The closing frames offer, without comment, a vision of indigeneity that is not crushed but that simply vanishes without the effort of oppression, erasure without blood or violence. The uncomfortable conversations with Beatriz at dinner are washed away by the floating wishes of her wealthy white patrons, and a magical realist fantasy of Beatriz returned to a simpler time and place in her native Nahuatl village on a seacoast where the mangroves are still pristine.

Dinner with Beatriz has been lauded as a meditation for our times. While it’s text is about the ruthlessness of racialized class violence, its conclusion is managed deus ex machina:  violence and erasure done by an invisible hand. It depicts resistance as a parlor game, designed to entertain and provide racial and class catharsis, while reassuring the viewer of the inevitability of white male capitalist empire. Dinner with Beatriz pretends to confront the highest order of the status quo, but in fact reminds its viewers that jockeying for place in the current state of empire is their destiny. While inviting an hour of morally cleansing discomfort, Dinner With Beatriz ultimately reinforces the belief that the hierarchy in which we each hold a precarious place is the only drama that matters.

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